Galway-based bakery Foods of Athenry was started in a converted shed on a farm when the dairy farming became unsustainable. Despite some serious ‘teething’ problems, the business is now one of the leading gluten-free food producers in the West.
It was a mix of necessity and opportunity. Paul was a dairy farmer and farming was difficult at the time so something had to be done to supplement the farm income, and so a small bakery business was born. Very quickly the opportunity for the bakery business outweighed the potential for the future of dairying for us. After a few years, the cows were sold and the bakery then moved into the empty milking parlour – where it remains today.
Any big breaks?
There was no ‘big break’ for Foods of Athenry – more a series of smaller opportunities that were presented, and then combined with hard work and tenacity led to steady and sustained growth.
“I regret not knowing more at the initial stages and having better knowledge to allow us to progress less painfully and without so many mistakes.”
I regret not knowing more at the initial stages and having better knowledge to allow us to progress less painfully and without so many mistakes. We branded and grew the brand organically, reinventing a few times as we learned more, but it was an exhausting process. But I am thankful for the mistakes as they made us better people. I regret the bakery burning down in 2011, that was a difficult and painful time, both personally and from a business point of view. But even that has made us more thankful for what we have achieved since.
“Do a gap analysis – check what is out there in your chosen category; do cost comparisons and formulate a rock solid USP.”
Any tips for food business starters?
Learn as much as you can to make the best choices. Engage with your Local Enterprise Office, Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and other food entrepreneurs. Do a gap analysis – check what is out there in your chosen category; do cost comparisons and formulate a rock solid USP. Spend as much as you can afford on giving your brand the best head start.
What do you do for your customers?
People are making informed decisions as to how they live their own lives – how they live, work, exercise and how they eat. We like to think we enable people to make food choices that suit their lifestyle. We understand how dietary necessities or choices can affect your life, and we work hard on producing a range of great tasting products that people trust and love.
“We like to think we enable people to make food choices that suit their lifestyle.”
What’s Christmas like?
We think about Christmas all year round. Believe it or not, some retailers have Christmas tied down by February so they can get catalogues underway – so we have to be always Christmas ready. Christmas baking starts with puddings in July and August and then gathers momentum in the following months until it is all-consuming by October and November. We don’t do a lot of extra marketing at this time of the year, as we have limited budgets. But we have a lot of repeat customers year on year and we are very grateful for our loyal customer base.
Your biggest achievement to date?
As with the failures, there has been no single biggest achievement. But we are thankful every time someone contacts us to tell us our products have improved their lives, every time we win a taste award (60 and counting), being able to provide employment in a rural area of east Galway, increasing our availability and our exports, staying married to my wonderful husband Paul who has stood with me through good and hard times. Reopening ten months after the fire of 2011 – moving forwards and upwards to be still here in 2017; doing what we love, with people we love, for people who love what we do.
“Irish people make great entrepreneurs as they are hardworking, diligent and educated.”
We all seem to be obsessed with food these days. Why?
I’d imagine some is down to necessity. There is also a greater consumer appreciation and demand for authentic products. Irish people make great entrepreneurs as they are hardworking, diligent and educated. As we travel more, we bring food experiences home and see gaps previously unnoticed. One of the best parts of being an Irish food producer is meeting other producers at events – the camaraderie is epic and they are all magnificent.
Have you met anyone who really inspired you?
I think as entrepreneurs, the best thing we can give is honesty. This can make your journey less lonely. I met Mary Ann O’Brien from Lily O’Brien chocolates – her heart-warming honesty to the speed bumps in her journey inspired me to persevere.
GUIDE: How to start and grow a food business.